The word “courage” has its roots in the Latin cor, for “heart,” a common metaphor for inner strength and ability to confront fear, pain or uncertainty. There is no better word to describe the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as they performed their debut concert of the 2012-13 season in the wake of a contract agreement that included enormous monetary and other professional concessions.
Thursday’s ASO concert began in a telling manner, before a single note was played. While it’s customary to see the musicians slowly assemble on stage and warm up as the audience slowly fills Symphony Hall, this time the stage remained empty. Then, as a body, the musicians took the stage together, all at once. It was a silent but powerful statement. The near-capacity audience responded immediately, rising to its feet in an ovation of enthusiastic applause and cheers.
“I’m so glad they’re back,” said a senior gentleman seated to my right as the audience settled down — but only long enough for a couple of breaths as conductor Robert Spano came on stage and the audience rose again for the traditional work that opens every ASO season: “The Star-Spangled Banner,” itself a metaphor for courage. Some members of the audience could be heard singing harmony, and many of those with lesser vocal acumen nevertheless sang with gusto.
The concert itself presented two solidly stalwart works of standard symphonic repertoire, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. Both had most recently been played by the orchestra in early 2011.
The distinguished soloist for the Beethoven was violinist Midori Gotō, known by the concert-going public simply as Midori. Now 40 years old, Midori became a star as an 11-year-old prodigy when a last-minute change in a New York Philharmonic concert featuring young performers suddenly put her into the spotlight under the baton of Zubin Mehta.
Although she is a formidable and focused performer who musically connects with her audience, Midori’s tone is not large, and the hall’s acoustics did not assist her. Spano led the orchestra in a bold, full-bodied Beethoven, but they did not really seem to overplay. Midori’s pianissimos could be heard when the orchestra was not playing, but there were occasions when her solo violin was simply not as competitive against the orchestra as it should have been, at least from where I was seated, about two-thirds of the way back on orchestra level (though not under the sound-dampening overhang of the loge).
Midori played the main theme of the concluding Rondo so liltingly that it almost seemed that she was going to dance up onto the podium and poke Spano with the scroll of her violin. Spano and the orchestra responded like a dance partner who retains a noble demeanor. Midori cut loose in the final cadenza near the end, where she strutted virtuosity and free energy, then was joined by the orchestra for the joyful concluding tutti.
During intermission, Midori cheerfully autographed CDs, choosing to stand in front of a table, which was moved back at her request, rather than have it intervene between her and her fans. Elsewhere in the Galleria, patrons conversed hopefully about the orchestra’s future, with some commenting favorably on the conciliatory letter from ASO President and Chief Executive Officer Stanley Romanstein that was printed in the program booklet.
Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 constituted the second half of the concert. Despite the composer’s own programmatic notes, Spano and the ASO gave renderings of the first and fourth movements that were more heroic than fateful. The low brass unambiguously contributed to that character. Also worthy of note was the 21-measure oboe solo that opened the ensuing Andantino, played simply and gracefully by principal oboist Elizabeth Koch Tiscione.
The Scherzo is the sunny part of the symphony, and at its conclusion some in the audience giggled their enjoyment and chattered a few quiet words of approval to one another, only to be almost surprised by the sudden, thunderous start of the Finale, either expecting a longer pause or simply not done with the relief valve provided by the Scherzo in an otherwise emotionally heavy work.
Off stage, both before and after the concert, the ASO musicians were clearly still emotionally reeling from the outcome of their labor negotiations, more observable in some faces than others. A few showed fatigue afterward, having put their reserves of emotional energy into the music. Wounds can be closed but nevertheless require time to heal. No amount of cosmetic dressing will change that. Yet the music continues, and it is the music itself that has the greatest power to heal.